Passing years cannot dull Connors' spirit

At 47, the double Wimbledon champion still has the master touch that keeps an audience spellbound

Sometimes it is only when sportsmen grow old and slow down that you can see exactly what it was that they did. Jimmy Connors, the Wimbledon champion of 1974 and 1982, arrived in London this week, and last night he gave a few thousand people in here a master class in the art of controlling a tennis ball.

Sometimes it is only when sportsmen grow old and slow down that you can see exactly what it was that they did. Jimmy Connors, the Wimbledon champion of 1974 and 1982, arrived in London this week, and last night he gave a few thousand people in here a master class in the art of controlling a tennis ball.

At 47, and currently placed fourth - behind Henri Leconte, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander - in the ATP Senior Tour standings, Connors now uses skill and guile to compensate for the reduction of speed and the dulling of instinct. What is not missing is the competitive spirit which took him to victory in 106 of the 163 finals he contested on the men's tour in a 19-year career in the top flight.

In 1995, the readers of Tennis magazine voted Connors the most exciting player of the previous 30 years. He was also placed high in six other categories. These were not specified in the bumph which greeted those who attended the first session of the five-day Honda Challenge, but they might be assumed to include being the best at using nefarious means to break an opponent's concentration, and being the best at denying Ken Rosewall the Wimbledon title that would have crowned his magnificent career.

Not everyone loved Jimbo in his heyday, to say the least. Some saw Arthur Ashe's stealthy dismantling of Connors at the All England Club in 1975 as just retribution for the upstart's wanton destruction of Rosewall the previous year. But the ancient wounds were forgotten last night, particularly since he was scheduled to open the tournament by meeting a British favourite, John Lloyd.

The nostalgic element of this match-up resided in the fact that both men were early suitors for the hand of the young Miss Christine Marie Evert, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, America's tennis sweetheart. Connors courted her first, and they were engaged to be married when they opened the 1974 tournament ball by taking the first dance together, having just won both singles titles. But it was Lloyd who married her, although not for long.

Both men are married to other people now, and last night's rivalry was confined to tennis. Connors, dressed in white, was all sweetness and light, although he made a fearful noise. He was always a grunter, but nowadays he propels a serve with a cry of "Oooyer" that sounds like the Owl of the Remove watching somebody steal his jam doughnuts. He understands the obligation to entertain at these occasions, and is not averse to following a particularly strenuous point by leaning back against the scoreboard and observing, in the stagiest of whispers, "I'm nearly 50, you know", or turning to the crowd, opening his arms in supplication, and pleading: "How much longer?"

The level of humour in these matches is not very elevated, but it hardly needs to be. When someone high up in the velvet-upholstered circle boxes coughed as Lloyd was about to serve, the British player offered his own handkerchief. "Are you all right up there?" Connors inquired. When the American hit a spectacularly weedy volley, he addressed the next serve with the campest of postures. Having chased an angled drive to send it down the line for a sublime winner, he declined to repeat the feat in a similar situation on the next point, but stood his ground and threw his racket across the baseline instead. All these pearls were greeted with general laughter.

Nor could anyone complain about the manners on display. Serving at 4-5 and 15-30, Lloyd overruled a line judge on Connors' scalding backhand pass to give his opponent two break points, from which the American took the first set. A couple of minutes later, defending a third consecutive break point at 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Connors reciprocated by calling a Lloyd shot in and, thereby, forfeiting his own serve, although he went on to take the set 7-5, and with it the match.

But the real spectacle was in the way Connors shaped his shots, something much easier to see now that the speed of the ball is reduced to something close to a level familiar to ordinary mortals. The flat trajectory of his drives off both wings was simply breathtaking. He seemed to be using the air itself as a frictional material against which the ball could be stroked. Lloyd played well, mounting a fine comeback in the second set, but it takes more than that to extinguish the embers of true genius.

There was genius on both sides of the net later in the evening, when Bjorn Borg, 43 years old, winner of five consecutive Wimbledon singles titles, confronted John McEnroe, 40, a three-time All England champion who beat the Swede in one final and lost to him in two others, one of which included the legendary 34-point tie-break.

Both men are barely recognisable as middle-aged versions of the hirsute and headbanded youngsters of 1980, but they played extremely recognisable tennis, and in the sixth game of the first set last night they came as close to reproducing the magic of the tie-break as even the most deluded romantic could have dreamed.

As McEnroe served at 2-3, they went at it with the old verve and tenacity. McEnroe served three aces, saved three break points, and won the game with a wonderful backhand pass down the line, his shoulders still opening as he raised himself on tiptoe in that characteristic follow-through. Borg, waiting for his opponent's serve with his feet braced as if he were about to set off in a 1,500m race, returned with supernatural brilliance on both wings, causing the new US Davis Cup captain to stand and shake his head in rueful admiration. McEnroe won by 7-5, 6-4, but showing too much of an interest in that would be like standing in front of a Degas and a Cézanne and inquiring about the prices.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible